Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?

Priests Serve Gladly But Not Without Criticism


Remember the time when some of his parishioners in the village of Ars went to their Curé with a problem? They reported to St. John Vianney that, sad as it was to tell him, there was a petition to the bishop being circulated in Ars claiming that he, their pastor, was incompetent, lazy, ineffective, driving people away and unpopular—and thus should be removed. "Show me the petition," John Vianney asked them. When they brought it in to him, he read it—and, to their utter amazement, took a pen and signed his name to it! "They're right," he commented, as he grabbed his cloak and left the rectory for his daily rounds of visiting his sick parishioners. So much for the petition to remove as pastor the man who would become the patron saint of parish priests!

The whole Church seems to have turned into Ars these days, as priests are at times beat up by the media, the people, the public, even their parishioners. Not that they seem to be feeling sorry for themselves—recent studies demonstrate that priests in the United States have never been happier, with 92 percent of priests saying they'd do it all over again, a rate higher than any other profession. But it still can be a burden to have to face unrelenting criticism, as priests do today.

Not long ago, I got a letter from a group of people in a parish saying that they had decided that their pastor had to go. Why? Because "sometimes he curses." I felt like replying, "Big damn deal. He's staying."

Once, during a visit to a parish, a group cornered me to complain that their pastor was "too conservative," preached too long and "couldn't connect with them." Another parish down the road had a letter-writing campaign because their pastor was "too liberal" and told them to hold hands at the Our Father. Of course, he had to go, they told me. Priests can't seem to win. Either too liberal or too conservative...

It almost seems "open season" on priests. Always has been, I suppose, as St. John Vianney, or, for that matter, Jesus Himself, the Eternal High Priest, would assure us. But the volume seems turned up today. Why? For one, the clergy sex abuse crisis has unfairly damaged every priest, as we are all sadly painted with the same wide brush. Two, in a fractured Church, both sides blast the parish clergy. The far left dismisses them as relics of a patriarchal, oppressive, medieval Church, while the far right castigates priests for selling out to modernism. Priests might as well hang a bull's eye on their clergy shirt! After the scandal, every fault is magnified. I sometimes wonder if the ancient heresy of Donatism—the belief that the validity of the sacraments depends on the virtue of the priest—is making a comeback!

Three, many have noted a spirit of congregationalism growing in the Church. In its errant form, it leads to people defining the Church by their own narrow, local needs. No pope, no bishop, no "priest from outside" is really necessary, thank you. We're "the Church" and we'll take care of our own business. You priests just show up and do what we want. If we don't like you, we'll get rid of you. If we like you, we will not let you go, even if the bishop tells you to.

Finally, many admit that, in the laudable and proper emphasis given by the Second Vatican Council on the "priesthood of all believers," with ministry, leadership and service flowing from the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, maybe the unique charism, vocation and identity of the sacrament of Holy Orders—also firmly taught by the council—was unintentionally de-emphasized. A balance is so necessary.

What are priests to do? Well, for one, we put it in perspective. We realize with gratitude that the overwhelming majority of our people love their priests. Are they aware of our flaws? They sure are, but they love their priests all the same. Two, priests admit that sometimes the complaints, especially when civilly and constructively expressed, have merit, especially when they're about our homilies or occasional crabbiness! If the "open season on priests" fosters a sense of humility in us, I guess it's worth it! Three, an effective antidote can be working hard with the splendid lay leadership we are blessed to have in each of our parishes. God's people overwhelmingly encourage us.

Finally, when it does get us down, priests can read the "Life of the Curé of Ars" by Trochu, or, better yet, the Passion from the Gospels by one of the four evangelists. Priests have been through it before!

I bring this up as we continue the Year for Priests in the Church. As you may recall, our Holy Father has asked us to celebrate this special year through June, 2010. So many of you are already doing it—keep it up, please! We priests need it! The Church needs it! Thanks!